WASHINGTON – On Tuesday representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google testified in front of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. As has been widely speculated and reported on, Russian interference in the 2016 election has found to be broader and more sophisticated than initially assumed.
More than a 100 million Americans have been expected to come across content created by Russian troll farms. Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, outlined in his opening statement how as many as 126 million Facebook users may have seen content “that originated from the Russian operation.”
This content was specifically aimed at dividing Americans. These troll farms created and shared content on both sides of the political debate, giving rise to all kinds of inflammatory and, in some cases, downright offensive content. Similar practices were found by Twitter executives on their own platforms. Twitter explained how they have uncovered 2,572 Russia-linked accounts and more than 36,000 automated “bots” – amounting to a total of 1.4 million tweets about the election last fall.
These revelations sparked outrage from lawmakers. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who has been a strong ally of Silicon Valley, said “in the past election, you failed.” Republican Senator John Kennedy expressed his frustration with the Facebook as well, noting “I think you do enormous good, but your power scares me.”
It is now clear, from released documents, that the major aim of this Russian-sponsored operation was to create chaos and political discontent within the American community. One particular instance where this is highlighted can be found is Texas. A Russian-controlled group, ‘Heart of Texas’, announced a rally to take place on May 21, 2016 under the banner of “Stop Islamization of Texas.” Consequently, another Russian-controlled group publicized a competing rally to “Save Islamic Knowledge” at the same place and same time.
These findings led Senator Dianne Feinstein to remark, “I don’t think you [big tech] get it. What we are talking about is cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyberwarfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country.” What followed in her remarks is pivotal and absolutely crucial – “We are not going away, gentlemen and this is a very big deal.”
Such interferences strike at the very heart of the democratic process. Accompanied by a strategy to sow conflict and discord can be – and has been – of disastrous consequences. It is crucial for big tech companies and social media platforms to uncover any gaps in their systems that allow for such intrusion. Russia’s aims are getting clear by the day. They were not necessarily targeted towards one particular candidate, rather towards civilians who hold their own values and beliefs dear to themselves. What Russia managed to do was stir up these emotions and instill a sense of fear in the American people. These used the popularity and platform of social media to propagate these misgivings/’fake news’ and set the Left and the Right on a collision course. In short, they used the democratic process to discredit the democratic process.
This is more than a partisan issue. By the questions asked and statements made by lawmakers, one gets the sense that they understand the consequences underlined by this intrusion. The quicker these tech companies and online platforms understand and correct this, the better it’ll be, not just for their platforms, but for the entire country.
Image courtesy Gizmodo.